Following Keith’s advice, I watched Hail, Caesar! in Bradford’s Pictureville Cinema in 4K. It certainly looked good – but whether I would have noticed any difference if it was a 2K print is something I feel unable to judge. Anyway, the film proved an enjoyable distraction for a couple of hours. But, I’m not sure if it was a film that added up to more than its parts.
As the promotional material suggested, the Coen Brothers expertly create the Hollywood studio environment of the early 1950s in loving detail. Strangely, there are some basic mistakes if the setting is supposed to be 1951 as some publicity suggested. (The worst error concerns screen shapes and aspect ratios – a Western is shown in a cinema with a credit for VistaVision which Paramount didn’t use until 1954 and White Christmas.) On the whole, however, taken as an amalgam of Hollywood practices, ‘Capital Pictures’, the studio in the film, represents the period from roughly 1949 to 1953 very well. As several reviewers suggest, the Coens are not really interested in a plot as such, but more in the vignettes of production of different kinds of films and the way in which studio practices are changing – or not.
The two plotlines of note involve the studio ‘fixer’ based on the real Eddie Mannix who worked at MGM. We see him trying to repress gossip stories about the studio’s stars, grapple with his own family and work situation – and find a missing star played by George Clooney in ‘doofus’ mode. None of this adds up to much but does allow the Coens to play with ideas about the US Communist Party, religious sensitivity towards films and the ethics of the military-industrial complex. There are terrific set pieces including a Channing Tatum dance sequence riffing on Gene Kelly and Alden Ehrenreich as a Roy Rogers/Gene Autry ‘singing cowboy’ who for many viewers no doubt steals the picture. There are also two scenes featuring delicious Jewish jokes/characterisations. And yet . . . the film has not attracted huge audiences. It might be that fans will return for repeat viewings but somehow the Coens don’t quite get the excellent parts (performances, sets, cinematography, music etc.) to make something whole. For me, the last really funny Coen Brothers film was O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). I’d rate the ‘serious’ films as better value, with both Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and A Serious Man (2009) as effective recent titles.
You have to hand it to the Coens. They are intelligent and highly-skilled filmmakers who know how to engage diverse audience groups. They also like to ‘play’ in a serious way, creating controversies and teasing their fans. The most interesting comment I’ve read about Inside Llewyn Davis is that the title could fit on an album cover and that the individual episodes might represent a collection of introspective songs about the artist’s unhappy lot. That seems a good call to me.
Llewyn is an angry man who isn’t making much money from applying his talent in as authentic a manner as possible. He has no home and moves from the floor or couch at friends to the occasional bed. His sister is about to sell his parents’ house. He is primed to insult anyone who offers the hand of friendship – but he is topped in the angry stakes by Jean, one of his former lovers. This is a Coens’ movie though and thankfully he isn’t ‘redeemed’. Many of those who don’t like the film suggest that it has no story or rather no ‘meaning’. I take the story to be about the folk singer who fails to find success because of a combination of bad luck (fate?), the unfortunate ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – just missing being in the right place at the right time – and the inability to compromise just enough to gain acceptance without squandering his talent. For me, the turning point of the narrative is Llewyn’s ‘audition’ for Albert Grossman (or his fictionalised counterpart). This is his big chance to impress the main promoter on the folk scene and he sings a song that many commentators have seen as ‘miserabilist’, a ‘real downer’ etc. In fact it is a beautiful rendition of an old English ballad (arranged in the version that Oscar Isaacs sings by the Irish guitarist Dáithí Sproule). It is contrasted with the smoother, more ‘poppy’ and conventional songs sung by the ‘Jim and Jean’ characters (played by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) and some other performers.
The Grossman who turned down Llewyn Davis would go on to promote Bob Dylan (who appears as a character towards the end of the film) – and the much more polished Peter, Paul and Mary – but who in 1961 doesn’t see what might become a commercial possibility.
I think the film is well written, beautifully photographed and, as might be expected from the Coens, the soundtrack is wonderfully arranged/scored/constructed by T-Bone Burnett. Oscar Isaac’s performance of the songs is very good and worth the price of the admission ticket on its own. But here is where the Coen’s get playful and tease. The ‘community’ of singers associated with the Gaslight Café and Greenwich Village generally in 1961 is based on and ‘around’ the historical figures of Dave Van Ronk and several other well-known names such as the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem and Tom Paxton. I’m sure I read/heard that the Coens said that they didn’t know that Ewan MacColl only wrote ‘Shoals of Herring’ in 1960 – but the narrative implies that Llewyn had sung the song to his father many years before. Did they really not know? There are other anachronisms as well, including a poster for The Incredible Journey (1963) (part of the entertaining narrative of a Greenwich Village cat). The barely disguised impersonations and sly jokes (Llewyn comments on the sweaters worn by the Clancy Brothers performers) and the anachronisms provide ample material for fans either of the music itself or of the Coens’ films to discuss at length.
Inside Llewyn Davis has prompted me to explore Dave Van Ronk’s music. He’s someone I’ve always vaguely known about but never properly listened to and now perhaps I will. I guess it helps (to get funding) if the characters in a kind of faux biopic like this are relatively young and beautiful. I wonder how important Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan (whose husband Marcus Mumford has a leading role in the music performed in the film) are to the success of the film for younger audiences? It occurs to me that a biopic of a similarly ‘difficult’ but older and less photogenic character like Ewan MacColl would offer personal dramas, songs at least as good and a similar clash of ideas about where the music should be going – but would add some radical politics as well.
The official website for Inside Llewyn Davis carries a useful background piece on the folk scene in New York in 1960-2.
Inside Llewyn Davis is clearly a film with American cultural content and it is an ‘American’ film, but it’s worth noting that it has been made in association with StudioCanal – a link going back to the Coens’ early work with Working Title/Universal/Vivendi? – and the UK company Anton Capital Entertainment which currently supplies 30% of StudioCanal’s funding. So Inside Llewyn Davis is technically a US/France/UK film.